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A case brought by 65 former Hercules workers has lost much of its clout after several employees and attorneys withdrew their support.

The lawsuit filed against Hercules in 1992 also has been affected by substantial refinements in the courts' interpretation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Shifts in the law that occurred after the 65 filed suit now favor employers."We are greatly concerned about the chances of prevailing against Hercules in light of recent (court) decisions," lawyers Claudia Berry and Fred Silvester wrote their clients earlier this year.

The former employees were included in far-reaching layoffs in the early 1990s when Hercules lost more than $2 billion in government contracts as the Cold War wound down.

"Where do you go at this stage of the game?" asked plaintiff Erma Thompson, 47, of Murray, who worked as a buyer at Hercules for 12 years before her 1991 layoff. "It's a mess."

Eighteen former employees have quit the case.

"We have not settled with them, they have abandoned their claims," said Hercules spokesman Dave Nicponski.

Berry and Silvester, who represent another 23 former employees - including many who turned down nominal settlement offers from Hercules despite the changes in the law - also have withdrawn from the case.

Three other former employees have had their claims thrown out or pared down by U.S. District Judge David Sam.

What's more, Hercules has a motion pending to dismiss the remaining plaintiffs' cases. The company's arguments rely heavily on other court rulings that have sided with employers.

Between 1990 and 1992, some 1,800 people were shaved from Hercules' Utah payroll, reducing it to 2,700.

Sixty-five of the workers who lost their jobs each put up $300 and retained the two lawyers. Beery and Silvester did not respond to requests for interviews.

"Our lawyers led us to believe that we had a good case and we had a good chance," said Joan Seeds, 54, of West Valley City, who spent 10 years with Hercules until her 1991 layoff as an accountant.

But recent court decisions did not bode well for the former employees. Berry and Silvester tried to settle but made it clear what they would do if their clients did not opt for a settlement.

"We would consider that as a rejection of our advice and would be forced to look at the possibility of withdrawing from your case," they wrote. "We do not believe that a better settlement or judgment can be obtained for you."